'Two households, both alike in dignity
(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.'
That's Shakespeare's prologue to Romeo and Juliet. It gives the audience a clue of the tragedy that is to come. Last week we heard the prologue of Ecclesiastes if you like, a very different prologue. In the first verse we meet the Teacher who I take to be a believer describing life in a fallen world. In the second verse he gives us his headline:
"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless."
Meaningless translates literally as vapour or breath. Everything is vapour he says. Life is like a puff of smoke. It slips between our fingers. It quickly fades and disappears. Here one minute, gone the next. The teacher is always real with us. But does the teacher give us any hope in a fallen world? Let's pray that God would help understand his word tonight…
If chapter one is the Teacher's headline about life in a fallen world, then chapter two is a series of case studies where he seeks to answer his question about life, 'What does man gain from his labour?'. Come with me to Ecclesiastes 2:1 (page 469):
"I said to myself, "Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good."
This week we'll see the Teacher put life to the test. That's my first point: The Teacher's Test (1-16). His intention is as we see in verse 3 to "see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives." He wants to find out what is the good life. As he cuts into pleasure, wisdom and toil what will he find?
First up he takes on pleasure, in particular great projects. In this section it's as if the Teacher takes on the persona of King Solomon and put his achievements to the test. Remember, the Teacher stands in the line of wisdom teaching associated with Solomon. Look with me at verse 4:
'I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone else in Jerusalem.'
Solomon attempted great projects. He wanted to do something truly important, something that would last. Solomon is long gone, but we share his desire to do something that will last.
I watched an interview with Angelina Jolie where she shared some of her desire for directing a movie. She said, "What am I supposed to be doing with my life? I want to do something important. I want to connect." It struck me that whether you're a Hollywood superstar or an 'Ordinary Joe' we all ask, "What am I supposed to do with my life?" One answer is to do something important by making a name for ourselves by being employee of the month or winning an Oscar!
The other alternative is to accumulate great possessions. Look what Solomon possessed in verse 8:
'I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well – the delights of a man's heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.'
I take it that when he says my wisdom stayed with me he means he's keeping his objectivity. All throughout history people have tried to find the good life in their possessions. Years ago William Blakiston inherited a house near Gateshead through marriage. The house was a little shabby so he upgraded to something a little more impressive. Later on a Mr Bowes married Mr Blakiston's great granddaughter and inherited the house. They made lots of money from the coal on their land so the family upgraded again adding a chapel, a banqueting house, a landscaped forest and a column so all the neighbours could see their wealth.
I imagine the Bowes family were pretty chuffed with their upgrade, Solomon was certainly pleased with all he achieved. We see this in verse 10:
'I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labour, and this was the reward for my toil.'
The sheer activity gave Solomon pleasure, but with the achievement the pleasure began to fade. You see we can cover up our ache at our transient toil with busyness, but once we stop the ache comes back to the surface. We see this in the next verse:
"Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun."
The Teacher writes over all of Solomon's achievements, "Vapour!" All he did was transient toil. It was just a puff of smoke! Angelina Jolie longs to do something important, to make that movie that will last the test of time but in time such project are forgotten. Who know who won the best film Oscar in 1949? Who won best supporting female in 1965? Who won best director in 1981? I'm sure they're recorded on Wikipedia, but the things we toil for are so quickly forgotten. If you go to Gibside you will find William Blakiston's upgraded house. It's now just a ruin managed by the National Trust. The family had to literally abandon the house because they could no longer afford it. They stripped the roof and contents and left it to rot. All William Blakiston worked for is vapour. The teacher says projects and possessions are ultimately transient toil. It passes between our fingers!
And so the Teacher turns to wisdom, is that the way to the good life? Let's see in verse 13:
'I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness. The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realise that the same fate overtakes them both.'
The Teacher says wisdom is better than folly, but he saw that wisdom in itself had its limitations. The problem is that both the fool and the wise person face the same fate. And so the Teacher gives this verdict in verse 15:
"The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?" I said to myself, "This too is meaningless." For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered; the days have come when both have been forgotten."
The Teacher gives the verdict on wisdom: vapour! It does not solve the problem of death. The Teacher has put life to the test. He's tried it all: pleasure, projects, possessions, wisdom but all of it is spoiled. The Teacher cuts into all aspects of life and finds out they are all good stuff spoiled. You can make an Oscar winning film but it will be forgotten. You can build a mansion and it will fall into ruin. You can amass great wisdom yet you too will be forgotten with the fool. Life under the sun is fallen. This is life outside of Eden. This is Genesis 3 unpacked.
So the Teacher has put life to the test, and we see the response of his heart. So my second point is The Teacher's Grief (17-23). Let's listen to the Teacher in verse 17:
'So I hated my life, because the work is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun.'
When we die we must leave what we've toiled for to another, and who knows what they'll do to it. William Blakiston's fine house was one day left to rot by his relatives. The house is a ruin. The stables are a tea shop. So the Teacher comes back to his big question of what do we gain in our work again in verse 22:
'What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labour under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.'
The Teacher is brutally realistic. In this fallen world life and all we work to achieve so easily slips through our fingers. Remember when you were a child playing in the sea and you'd pick up some sea water in your hand and try and carry it back to the sand, but by the time you got back to the beach the water had seeped through your fingers. That is what life is like in our fallen world. So the teacher grieves. He groans. We groan with him.
But he does not give in to despair in this broken world. You see the Teacher knows grief in this world but he also knows joy. And that's my final point: The Teacher's Joy (24-26).
What is it that allows the possibility of joy to return? It's only when the Teacher gives up his quest for finding a profit and it is replaced by the idea of receiving a gift. Come with me to verse 24:
'A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him who can eat or find enjoyment?'
Opportunities to enjoy eating, drinking and work, when they come, are not human achievements but gifts from God. So the Teacher tells us, it is right to enjoy God's creation gifts. This isn't hedonism the Teacher is advocating but a contentment with the good things God gives us. When God allows to enjoy eating, drinking and working it is a sweet relief in a fallen world. Such pleasures won't undo the brokenness of the world, but the Teacher says to us it is not wrong to enjoy these gifts of grace.
How can we best enjoy God's creation gifts of food, drink and work? We'd do well to remember where our food ultimately comes from. Last year we wound up in the Sunderland Museum on a rainy Saturday afternoon. One of the exhibits is on the glassware that Sunderland used to famous for. You'd be right to think that it wasn't a particularly exciting display to look at but one of the items caught my eye. It was a Victorian glass plate which had, 'Give us this day our daily bread' etched around the edge. I can't help but think every time you took your slice of bread from it you were reminded who it came from. Food is a joyful gift from God! So when we eat it's a joy building habit to give thanks. As we give thanks it reminds us and teaches our children that God does give good gifts even in this fallen world.
And it's not just food either. Verse 26a says, 'To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness.' The great Victorian preacher Spurgeon once spent the afternoon catching up with an old friend. Remember too that Spurgeon was greatly affected by depression and knew the brokenness of this world. They'd gone for a walk and recounted amusing stories from what had happened over the previous years. As they talked they laughed and joked. Spurgeon said to his friend, let's give thanks for the laughter God is allowing to enjoy. So they got down on their knees and prayed in the middle of the wood.
When we pray, let's give thanks for happy times God gives us: the day at work that goes to plan; the holiday that you remember with affection; the time playing with the kids in the park; the first cup of tea or coffee in the morning. We have no right to these things, they are gifts of grace.
With all of these gifts we have a choice. We can either receive them as good gifts from God, or we can make the good gifts our god. It is possible to make the good things in life God things. We see this in 26:
'To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.'
We can either see life as receiving good gifts from God, or we can see life where God gives us nothing. Rather, it's all our achievement. Instead of living for God we end up living for good things: pleasure, projects or possessions. If you're not following Jesu, do you see you're living for something else? That you're making a good thing a God thing? The Teacher says if that is you – beware! Firstly, they will let you down. Let's say you end up living for relationships, you will find the relationship won't be perfect and you will be disappointed.
As Francis Schaeffer, the American minister said:
'in a fallen world if you demand perfection or nothing – whether in marriage, career, church or any area of life – if you demand perfection or nothing, you get nothing.'
Not only will what you live for let you down but one day it will be taken from you in death and judgment. You might have built the biggest house, you might have the biggest bank account, you might have had a life of pleasure but what is the profit if it is all taken from you?
The Teacher's question is, 'What is the profit of this life?' Much later, the greatest teacher, Jesus would ask a similar question in Mark 8:37:
'What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?'
Jesus says it's only when we give up our quest for profit that we find life. He says, 'whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.'
It's only when we give up our lives to him as saviour and king that we save our lives. When you trust in Jesus you will still grieve at the brokenness of our world. But you won't be overwhelmed by this fallen world or by judgment. You see Jesus forfeited his life on the cross so we could gain eternal life. In Christ we are given a name that will last forever. We are given a heavenly inheritance that will never rot. He is the ultimate gift we can receive from God. Jesus isn't just a temporary relief in a broken world, but the eternal saviour of our fallen world.
Let's sum up. We realise that life is fallen in this world. But let's not despair. Let's enjoy the passing relief of God's creation gifts and be content. Most of all let's receive by faith Christ who will one day bring the permanent relief we long for.